Refugee Crisis
Give Mrs. Fitch My Regards!

Wilfried Eckstein visits refugees at the trade school | Photo: Mathias Wild Allgäuer Zeitung
Wilfried Eckstein visits refugees at the trade school | Photo: Mathias Wild Allgäuer Zeitung

After World War II, many Germans received care packages from Americans. A resident of Kaufbeuren, a small city south of Munich, still remembers this. Touched by that show of humanity and motivated by deeply held Christian beliefs, she is opening her heart and door to others in need by volunteering to help the refugees who are now arriving in her own country. This article retells this story and asks: How are the refugees being received? How are they being prepared for future employment?

“Give Mrs. Fitch my regards!” Mrs. Fleischmann says as I take my leave. Fitch was the sender’s name on the address label of a CARE package sent to the Fleischmanns by American Quakers - 65 years ago. During that time in history, many Germans received such packages filled with goodies from the United States. Mrs. Fleischmann’s parcel had also contained a doll. A few years ago she parted with it heavy-heartedly, donating it to a museum commemorating the Quakers’ aid to devastated post-war Germany.

In 1945, the people of Germany had just been liberated from the terror regime of the Nazis. The country had been reduced to rubble, and its people needed help. The sweet greetings from America, the clothes and the toys, were an unexpected gesture of international bonding and an encouraging signal to the German people: You are not alone in rebuilding your lives. Today, elderly Germans are reminded of such times and symbolic gestures as they see refugees arrive in Germany. “We were on the receiving end of such goodwill once. We know how good it feels and how vital it is to get help.”

At the moment, most refugees are coming from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Eritrea and other African nations. Many arrive from the south and cross the border into Bavaria. 15% of all refugees who come to Germany remain in Bavaria, bringing the current total to almost 90,000 asylum seekers. They are assigned to villages, communities and towns such as Kaufbeuren: The small town of 42,000 inhabitants is a pre-Alpine gem in the Allgäu region southwest of Munich. 650 refugees have already been quartered there. The city, various municipal and state authorities, charitable organizations, foundations and citizens’ initiatives welcome and provide for them the best they can.

Deputy mayor Ernst Holy and his department chief for Labor and Social Affairs Peter Kloos are at the forefront of implementing national refugee policy. Their primary concern is providing housing for the asylum seekers. The city rents vacant apartments and houses in order to address the most pressing issue, accommodation. For when the busses with the refugees arrive, shelters must be ready. Each month brings an average of 22 new arrivals, with no end in sight.

The state doesn’t act behind closed doors. Authorities depend on the goodwill of the population every step of the way, beginning with accommodation. Fears that the presence of refugees might negatively affect real estate values in their neighborhoods soon give way to pragmatic welcome. The new arrivals all find shelter. Volunteers from the “Work Group Asylum” help them furnish their apartments and procure clothing, accompany them to the authorities to get paperwork done and give them advice on how to run their households, bonding and building personal relationships at the same time.

Like other villages, communities and towns, the city of Kaufbeuren wants to house the asylum seekers in a decentralized manner. “Let’s not create a ghetto!” people say. While a centralized cluster of refugees in one location would facilitate provisioning and possibly be safer, decentralized housing offers the clear benefits of connecting the new arrivals with their local communities and helping them learn the language. And this, after all, must be the objective: to get people settled in Germany in a way that offers private and professional opportunities.

To achieve this, authorities must interact with individual private initiatives. This collaboration has strengthened over the past few months as the swelling influx of refugees posed greater challenges. The authorities recognized that they cannot reach the refugees without the help of dedicated citizens and their networks, while citizens’ initiatives appreciate that a lot of red tape has already been dealt with. Instead of having lengthy negotiations, volunteers can cut right to the chase and simply help. They emphasize, however, that they are not an extension of the authorities and must not be expected to do their work for them.

Kaufbeuren looks back on a proud history, dating all the way to the 8th century. In the 14th century, medieval emperors elevated Kaufbeuren to the status of a Free Imperial City. In the face of this current wave of migration, Mayor Holy remembers similar challenges in the previous century. After World War II, Germans took in the ‘Sudetendeutschen’, ethnic Germans who came to Germany in the 1950s after being displaced from parts of the present-day Czech Republic. Back then, Kaufbeuren became a new home to 13,000 citizens. In the 1990s, ‘Volga Germans’ came to Germany and Kaufbeuren from Kazakhstan. Today, more than 40% of Kaufbeuren’s population of 42,000 stems from those two waves of migration. The marked difference between the migrants of the past and today’s refugees is that back then, the new citizens had close ties to the German language and culture, and most arrived as families. Both factors helped them gain a foothold in the new environment. Linguistically, integration was easy. Psychologically, the comfort of the family offered the necessary emotional support, helping overcome the trauma associated with the loss of home and the challenges of starting from scratch in new surroundings. This is what people remember today. This is why German migration policy encourages refugees to bring their family members. This is why it is important to provide educational opportunities to learn the language and acquire career skills. Of course, you cannot force people to learn. Neither can you accustom people to the rules governing life in Germany nor to the roles of men and women from one day to the next.

A quarter of the refugees in Kaufbeuren are between the ages of 27 and 40; almost half of all refuges are between the ages of 18 and 27. They are eager to make money as soon as possible, both for themselves and to send it to family members who stayed behind. Yet the German labor market has its limits and requires knowledge of the German language as well as professional skills, which the young asylum seekers have to learn – just like their German peers. Yet you can’t learn a language overnight. It can easily take one to two years. Germany’s famed dual vocational training system, which gives youngsters a solid foundation of professional skills, usually takes three years to complete. Taken together, this adds up to a five-year period during which an asylum seeker does not make enough money to rent his own apartment, let alone support a family at home or in a refugee camp.

The Kaufbeuren trade school currently offers two special classes for asylum seekers. The objective is to provide quality training at the same level as the training that is offered to native youngsters. This is the only way to achieve successful integration, says Director of Studies Cornelia Nieberle-Schreiegg. More training modules must be created for the large and increasing number of young asylum seekers. At least for now, all school-age youngsters are covered. Nieberle-Schreiegg plans to establish more classes over the next six months. She is desperately seeking teachers for vocational subjects as well as companies willing to offer apprenticeships. Yet despite all of her efforts, it is possible that a gradual expansion of teaching capacities will not keep pace with the influx of migrants and their unique needs. At this point, all young asylum seekers are able to take advantage of the offered classes, but quite a few of them are ill or traumatized. A special group which needs even more comprehensive attention is the unaccompanied minors, who fortunately are being taken care of by a special foundation.

Given the current influx of refugees, citizens’ involvement is indispensable. They take care of the asylum seekers, reach out to them, offer to teach German, help them explore the region, meet people and find their bearings in Germany. Günter Kamleiter is one of the volunteers who help refugees and now uses his long years of experience to mentor and support other helpers. He was the head of the “Work Group Asylum” long before refugees made the headlines. The work group supplies the staples, offers early childhood education to children, helps with homework, offers a creative workshop as well as language classes run by volunteers, a women’s group, a community workshop and more.

Nativity Scene, Dreifaltigkeitskirche, Photo: Günter Kamleiter
Nativity Scene, Dreifaltigkeitskirche, Photo: Günter Kamleiter
Günter Kamleiter leads me into the Lutheran parish church. As during every Christmas season, a nativity scene is set up there, which makes me think of the story of the nativity. The connection with the present situation is not lost on anyone. Weren’t Mary and Joseph the most famous refugees in search of protection and shelter? The refugee crisis is a reminder of the circumstances of the birth of Christ. The church chose “Escape and Migration” as its theme for 2015/16. For Christmas, it set up its nativity scene as an appeal to hospitality and the grace of charity.

Church is not an apolitical space. It wasn’t when it provided a safe place for citizens protesting for their freedom in the GDR, and it wasn’t in the centuries prior to that. In fact, this parish church in Kaufbeuren has recently availed itself of its eons-old privilege of church sanctuary. When an asylum seeker was about to be deported by the authorities, the parish mobilized and took him in. As long as he remained on the church premises, he was safe from deportation. After holding out for three months, he eventually could no longer be deported to a refugee prison in Hungary. Church sanctuary is, of course, only a last resort in extreme humanitarian emergencies, yet it creates an autonomy that is vital to the functioning of a civil society. It gives dedicated citizens the autonomy and the strength to stand up to authorities and the politics of the day. It is here, next to the nativity scene, that I meet Mrs. Fleischmann, who shares her story about the CARE package. She firmly believes in the power of hands-on human solidarity. She founded the “Work Group Asylum” with Günter Kamleiter twenty-six years ago. Now she asks me to tell her American friends: “Give Mrs. Fitch my regards!”